4 Must-Visit National Parks on the East Coast

Summer is synonymous with epic vacations. But you don’t have to venture to far-flung locations to see some of the world’s most beautiful locations, thanks to the U.S. National Park System. Founded in 1916, and a key part of the Department of the Interior today, the National Parks Service oversees the conservation and management of 63 breathtaking national parks across the country. Spanning the farthest reaches of Alaska to the West, and down to the waters surrounding the Florida Keys in the East, odds are there’s a famed national park near you. Here, we’re highlighting four of our favorite national parks in the eastern U.S. that should be on your travel list this summer.

Acadia National Park, Maine

No list of eastern national parks would be complete without including Acadia—arguably among the crown jewels of the entire National Park System. Featuring a rugged coastline marked by rocky granite cliffs, dense woodland and lapping tidal pools, this park occupies some 47,000 coastal acres of public land outside the town of Bar Harbor. Much of the park sits on Mount Desert Island—the largest island in Maine, and the second-largest along the east coast (just behind Long Island, NY in size). 

Among its incredible features, Acadia is home to Cadillac Mountain, which is the highest peak on the eastern seaboard at 1,530 feet above sea level. It’s also a popular place to watch the sunrise, since Cadillac is the first place in the U.S. to catch the sun’s rays each morning. Drive the 27-mile Park Loop Road for easy access to many of the park’s major attractions. And bring a bike or rent a kayak to explore the many trails and coastal secrets of this jaw-dropping park—a true national treasure. 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Spanning an astonishing 522,400+ acres connecting western North Carolina to eastern Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park lives up to its name. In addition to its sprawling size, the rolling mountains often appear smoky thanks to a dense, blue-tinged fog that frequently hugs the valleys between peaks. It’s blue in hue thanks to a natural vegetative gas, known as isoprene, that emits from the regional forest and foliage of the land. 

With its central location and vast biodiversity, Great Smoky Mountains National Park draws an astounding 14 million visitors each year—and counting. Visitors today can enjoy access to the park without entrance fees, making it a popular stopover park on many East Coast road trips (although a proposal is in the works to begin charging a modest parking fee starting in 2023). Guests can explore over 800 miles of hiking trails, along with a tangle of driving routes that offer fast access to soaring elevations and sweeping vistas. Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail is a consistent favorite. Whether you choose to hike or drive your way through the  sive park, keep your eyes peeled for an array of wildlife, from deer and elk to black bears.

Biscayne National Park, Florida

Composed of 95% water, this may seem an odd choice for a list of must-visit national parks. But what it lacks in physical land area, it more than makes up for in watersport adventures and underwater treasures. It is, in fact, home to four distinct ecosystems—the islands and cays that make up the Florida Keys, the naturally occurring mangroves and swamps, an expansive coral reef system (the world’s third-largest!), and Biscayne Bay itself. 

While it has close proximity to Miami and Homestead, Biscayne National Park is relatively challenging to access: there are no roads in and out of the park, nor regular public ferries. Visitors will need to charter boat transportation for the day, or book a guided tour with a trusted and eco-friendly service. But with a little planning ahead, this national park holds a wealth of one-of-a-kind natural attractions. Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard to explore the winding waterways that are draped in mangrove shrubs. Or bring a snorkel to explore the sprawling coral reef system, home to a range of biodiverse marine life. Pro tip: Don’t forget your Reef Friendly sunscreen.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Some say this 26,000-acre park feels like stepping back in time, offering the chance to see the untouched beauty of America’s coastal marshlands in their most natural state. Whatever feeling its raw natural beauty may evoke for you personally, there’s no denying that Congaree is an underrated national park. Drawing only around 200,000 visitors per year on average, you won’t find many crowds here. But for those lucky few who do make the trip, the carefully maintained park trails and boardwalks offer easy access to an abundance of sights. 

Though it’s just a 30-minute drive from Columbia, it feels a world away from anything. Rows of ancient cypress and champion trees dot the expansive bottomland forest, which is marked by tranquil floodplains and winding waterways in every direction. Expect ample opportunities for wildlife spotting, including otters, turtles, gators, snakes, and a wide range of avian life. One of the best ways to experience the park is by kayak or canoe, particularly along the 15-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail. There are also over 25 miles of trails and 2.4 miles of boardwalk to explore, making it an ideal national park for summer travelers of all activity levels. 

Get Your Park Pass

One of the best ways to take advantage of the National Park System is by purchasing an annual pass. For just $80 per year the pass grants you and one passenger in your vehicle access to over 2,000 federal recreation sites, including national parks, a variety of state parks, national wildlife refuges and a plethora other stunning natural attractions.